According to MHSA records, there are only 372 registered football officials in the state of Montana tasked with covering hundreds of teams playing thousands of games each fall. That’s not nearly enough. And pretty soon, decreasing numbers could necessitate big changes on the high school gridiron.
“In order to cover this stuff with the officials we have, we’ll have to move games to the middle of the week. The idea of Friday Night Lights will go away,” said veteran official Bob Griffith of Great Falls.
That’s the stark reality facing high school football in Montana as the number of officials continues to dwindle. Each and every year pools get smaller as officials retire, and there’s no new faces stepping into those roles.
“The problem is we’re getting older and we don’t have any new people to continue on,” Griffith said. “And that’s the big issue.”
Griffith says over half the Great Falls pool of officials are age 50 or older. Other regions around the state have similar problems. As it stands, officials in Montana are stretched incredibly thin – and that forces school to fork out a large portion of their athletics budget just to have enough referees to cover their game.
“Not having enough people to cover the games is a hardship on the schools because they have to pay officials to come from someplace else,” explained Griffith. “We’ve had time where we’ve had officials from the Great Falls pool head as far as Eureka, Whitefish, Bigfork, Ekalaka to cover games that people couldn’t cover. It’s not just Great Falls that’s hurting it’s all over the state and all over the nation.”
“Scheduling wise it can become a very big headache when you have nine games and you’re about four guys short,” said Dale Taylor, head of scheduling for the Great Falls pool. “When you’re sitting there trying to work with everyone’s schedule and you still can’t cover all the games, it hurts the kids.”
There are legitimate reasons why people choose not to give up their Friday nights, but to these seasoned refs the benefits of moving from the stands to the sidelines far outweighs the hardship.
“You don’t have to have played the game before. If you have an interest, if you have a liking for the game and you like being around kids and are willing to commit some time that’s all it is,” Griffith said. “You can have a good time.”
“It’s for the kids,” said Taylor. “It’s not for me. It’s not for anyone on my crew. It’s for the kids. And if we don’t start getting more officials, it’s the poor kids that are going to be the ones losing.”
Griffith and Taylor encourage anyone interested in being a football official to come to the first Great Falls pool meeting at North Middle School on August 9th. For more information, you can contact the Montana Officials Association at 406-442-6010.